10 min read

The Nebula Awards

What I Said, And What I Wore
The Nebula Awards
Photo by Andy Holmes / Unsplash

This past weekend, I had the incredible, surreal honor of hosting the 59th annual Nebula Awards. These awards honor outstanding achievements in Science Fiction and Fantasy literature; many describe them as the Emmys of genre fiction. My role as toastmaster for the evening was to deliver remarks and introduce categories of award. The team that planned and executed the evening was incredible – a well-oiled machine of hypercompetent people who showed up for the weekend ready to accomplish something spectacular, together.

As I was preparing for the weekend, everyone I spoke to about the banquet and ceremony asked me what I was planning to wear. This was a subject of great consideration for me; I care deeply about the visual language of both clothing and costume, and I put immense thought into how I would present myself on the Nebulas stage, where I would have the opportunity to speak to those present as well as those watching the livestream. I also knew that photographs would be taken, and those photographs would give me an opportunity to speak to those who weren’t listening to my speech. 

Here is what I wore.

A silver olive leaf necklace designed and crafted by silversmith Nadira Alaraj. The connecting band was crafted by the Kattan family. This pendant was made in Bethlehem, and was cast from individual, hand-harvested olive leaves. The olive tree carries deep meaning to the history and culture of Palestine. It is inseparable from Palestinian agricultural traditions.

I wore this gold-and-pearl olive branch brooch, which belonged to my maternal grandmother, who survived the Nazi occupation of Paris. Prior to 2023, nearly 48% of the land in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was planted with olive trees. These resilient, hardy trees usually live for three to five hundred years; they have been tended to by generations of families in Palestine. Those families gather each October to harvest olives from the trees their ancestors planted. Since the year 2000, Israel has destroyed more than two million olive trees on Palestinian land as part of an explicit campaign of ethnic cleansing. 

The Arab Group for the Protection of Nature (APN) is an independent non-profit organization concerned with the protection of the environment and natural resources of Arab countries against all hazards, including the destructive impacts of wars and foreign occupations. One of their slogans is, “They uproot one tree in Palestine, we plant ten.” You can support their work here.

I altered my gown to be clasped at the neck by this infinity knot bracelet, which was a gift from a loved one many, many years ago. It reminded me, all night, of the way war feels unending and unyielding; the staggering weight of human suffering feels infinite. But it’s not. Human pain is finite and, on many occasions, we have the power to help alleviate it. 

Gaza Funds is a website that gathers crowdfunding campaigns from people in need in Gaza. Operation Olive Branch helps fund medical evacuations from Gaza. You can go to both of these websites and see the names of families who need your help right now to escape pain, hunger, and death.

I wore these hand-cut brass earrings in the shape of Palestine. They were made by the Beit Doqu Development Society. The Beit Doqu Development Society is a nonprofit based in the village of Beit Doqu, which is an agricultural village near Jerusalem in the central West Bank. Over the last decade, the expansion of Israeli settlements, road networks, and the Separation Wall have completely encircled the village, resulting in the loss of a large area of agricultural land, a vital source of livelihood. The Development Society provides cultural, social, agricultural, and health services in the community while striving to enhance the status and role of women through income-generation activities.

Much of the language I used to describe the Beit Doqu Development Society is borrowed from the way they describe themselves on the Sunbula website. Sunbula is an organization that works in direct partnership with 25 artisan groups located in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Palestinian communities within Israel. You can learn more about their work and directly support the artisan groups they work with here.

I wore this hammered gold cuff made by artist Ghadeer Slayeh. The cuff design is Arabic calligraphy which transliterates to Al-hurriyeh la tamut. This phrase means ‘freedom never dies’. It is a sentiment that is bittersweet right now, as both a rallying cry to never give up on recognition, freedom, and justice for Palestinian people – and as a reminder of the hundreds of thousands of people killed in Palestine in the last eight months alone, whose numbers we have lost the ability to accurately count due to the total destruction of all death toll reporting infrastructure in Gaza.

I wore a keffiyeh, a symbol of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, justice, and freedom. The keffiyeh features a distinct pattern. There are olive leaves to represent perseverance, strength, and resilience. There is a fishnet pattern to represent the Palestinian connection to the Mediterranean Sea. There is a bold pattern of stripes, to represent trade routes with Palestine’s neighbors. 

The keffiyeh can be worn many different ways. It can be worn as a headwrap or shemagh, as a scarf or shawl, in front of the neck or behind. It is a garment that is as flexible and beautiful as the wide array of avenues to support and care we can show each other from around the world. If you’re looking for a new way to support those who are suffering now, here are some options: 

I also wore a black gown and black shoes. 

Below, you’ll find the full text of my opening speech as Toastmaster at the Nebula Awards. You can watch it on video, with captions, here.

Hello my friends. I am so excited to be in the room with you, celebrating the 59th annual Nebula Awards, honoring some of the brightest lights that shine in genre fiction today. Being in this room with you is such a pleasure. Tonight we have the opportunity to say the truest words we'll ever speak to each other: “Hot damn, don’t you look amazing”

I’m honored to be your toastmaster this evening. Anyone who knows me well knows that I take toasting very seriously. Here’s why: toasting is a form of magic. It is transformation. It is metousiosis – this is what we do when we toast. Metousiosis is a word that means a change of ousia – of essence, or of inner reality.

When you raise your glass and speak the words that are sacred to you, you change the essence of the drink within. When you take a sip, you commit to changing your own inner reality. We use our words and ritual gestures to imbue our modest beverages with intention and power. The drink in your hand becomes a potion that contains the qualities that matter to you, the memories that define you, the ambitions that grip you by the breastbone and yank you through your life. You raise your glass high to the people with whom you choose to break bread, and then you take the potion into yourself and feel yourself transform. 

My friends know that every time I raise a glass to toast, I toast twice in a row. The first toast is to joy and power and principle and transformation; the second toast is a lifelong promise. The first toast might be Neil Gaiman’s “To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due.” It might be one of the classic Naval toasts I learned from Max Gladstone – on Monday, Our ships at sea; on Tuesday, our sailors; on Saturday, ‘our wives and sweethearts, may they never meet’. On Sunday, ‘to absent friends and those at sea.’ Classically, frequently, my first toast is simply ‘cheers to queers’. 

The first toast changes; the second toast is the same every time. The language of it is strong because strength is necessary. The same two words, always. One of them is a swear and the other is an abomination: fuck fascism. That second toast is a pledge. It’s a battle cry. It’s my personal commitment to fight against the means and mechanisms of fascism, with all my breath and all my power, until one of us can’t fight anymore. It’s a toast I share with all my comrades who have fought and continue to fight alongside me. Tonight, it’s a toast I share with you.

Now, you’re more than welcome to incorporate this into your own toasting traditions; in a fight like this one, more is always merrier. Take it to your own bars and cocktail receptions and dinner tables. But if you are going to use it, it must always be the second toast. Fascism is a desperate, wretched, insecure ideology that puffs itself up and demands power and primacy in our lives; we must never surrender to that demand. We must always remember the fight we are in, but never at the expense of remembering what it is that we are fighting for. Fascism is antithetical to joy, courage, and creativity. It is, in the words of Miyazaki describing AI-generated art, an insult to life itself. We do not accept the insult by letting fascism come first.

So, what does come first? What do we value? What do we care about so much that we’re willing to bring our hearts and minds and bodies together for it? With so many of the brightest lights in science fiction and fantasy arrayed before me tonight, I know in my heart that we can get specific. It’s not enough, tonight, to swear our intentions; we do that all the time. We can do more. We, here in this room, we are powerful, and tonight, we are going to flex that power together. 

The toast we make here tonight needs to anchor the qualities that are shared by the brightest jewels in the firmament of genre fiction. There’s the kind of intricate worldbuilding that braids together language, poetry, food, interdependency, and diplomacy to breathe humanity into every corner of an invented society. Characters who embody the full transcendent thrills and torments of love and grief and loss and rebirth.  Translations that invite us to sink our hearts into stories that change our lives forever. Prose that reminds us why language is a tool of beauty and power. Whales – so many whales, please never stop writing about whales. 

All those things stand on their own two legs and stride through the greatest works of genre fiction. Except the whales, which wisely decided against legs. But I can think of a quality that marks our industry above and beyond even those examples. And it’s this quality that I think we should celebrate tonight.

It’s courage. 

I often say that working in this industry has taught me the meaning of courage. It’s because of people in this room here tonight that I was brave enough, back in 2017, to perform “I Believe In a Thing Called Love” on the karaoke stage at ConFusion. It’s because of my peers and colleagues in this profession that I had the gall to sew my own gown for the 2018 Hugo Awards (and it’s because of my friends in this profession that I found out the back of that gown was falling open to reveal more of me than anyone wants to witness). It’s because of this industry that I have the courage to stand up here in front of you tonight telling you that I have seen how brave you can be.

People in this room and people watching at home have used their courage to fight for stories that have been historically strangled out of existence by the long-armed McCarthyist legacies of the American Hayes Code and the Comics Code Authority. I have witnessed you pursuing the kind of formal creative innovation that exists beyond the very edges of literature, film, and art. The peers and colleagues I respect most have raised their voices, speaking out to condemn ethnic cleansing, genocide, and the state-sanctioned murder of civilians here at home and around the world. Time and again, you put your careers, reputations, and bodies at risk in pursuit of equality, justice, and compassion. I’ve watched as so many of you have chosen, over and over, to turn away from what is easy in favor of what is right, even when you are afraid.

Ultimately, that’s what courage means: The pursuit of principle in the presence of fear. Principle, not belief. A belief is just a thing you think; it lives inside your brain, or maybe inside your heart if you believe it so much that you run out of room up top. You can harbor a belief in complete secrecy. A principle is what happens when we breathe life into our beliefs through our actions. Principles live in our words and deeds, in our wallets and at our dinner tables, in how we treat our families and how we serve our communities. Principles require our courage.

And our principles and our courage are alive in the stories we tell. 

That is what we’re celebrating tonight: 

Innovation. Dedication. Craft. Principle. Courage.

Tonight, together, we have the power to create a new tradition. Raise your glass, take a breath. Recognize the love that drives you and the fight that compels you. Know who you are, and know what you are capable of becoming. With this toast, we transform.

To Courage and Principle.

And Fuck Fascism.

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